The View Up Here

Random scribblings about kites, photography, machining, and anything else

Branching Out – The Bixler 2

Posted by Tom Benedict on 27/11/2012

I’ve been doing aerial photography from a kite for over five years now. I started in 2007, using a borrowed camera and a kite that was never designed to lift things. These days I’m flying a DSLR and have a quiver full of kites, all of which were chosen specifically for KAP. I’ve come a long way, and still have a long way to go. It’s as much fun to pursue now as it was when I lifted my first camera off the ground. But there’s more in the air than kites.

When I was a kid growing up in Houston, a guy lived down the street from us who worked at NASA. He was brilliant. He was also a lot of fun. He and a bunch of his friends flew RC airplanes. This was back in the day when every plane was made from balsa, and the big players in the radio market were companies like Kraft. Everything ran on gas, and a “small” plane had a wingspan wider than I was tall. To say I was envious was an understatement. But even then I knew it was way outside my budget and skill level. I got a real thrill from watching him fly. But I didn’t think I’d ever be the one doing the flying.

As with KAP, things have come a long way with RC airplanes, too. It used to take skill and patience to turn a box of balsa wood into an airplane, and crashes used to be heart-stopping affairs that often spelled the destruction of months of hard work. These days you can pick up a ready-to-fly or almost ready-to-fly plane made out of foam that can be glued back together after a crash, and be flying again within the hour. Engines used to cost more than two years of allowance. These days a complete brushless DC power system might cost a quarter of that. Servos and radios used to be big bulky affairs that cost more than my body parts were worth on the black market. These days a complete Tx/Rx and servo set cost less than the plane they go in. In short, RC airplanes have finally become affordable for guys like me. So I asked for one for Christmas.

I don’t think it’ll take the place of KAP. For starters most of the KAP work I do relies on the camera being stationary in the air. I can do aerial panoramas if the camera is sitting still. Just spin it in place and trip the shutter. If the camera is on a moving platform like an airplane, that’s a lot harder to do. I also enjoy flying kites too much to ever stop now. Even when conditions aren’t right for photography, I’ll often put a kite in the air just so I can hold the string and smile at the wind. And really that’s what I want to get into RC airplanes for: to have fun. Because if watching my neighbor all those years ago is any indicator, they’re a LOT of fun.

But that’s not to say I’ll never stick a camera in a plane. Cameras, too, have come a long way since I was a kid. These days you can stick a tiny brick of a camera in an airplane and get a high quality video of the flight. Thousands of people are populating their airplanes with first-person view cameras and video downlink systems, GoPro nose cameras, tiny gumstick cameras stuck out on the wing tips or on the landing gear, etc. At some point curiosity will get the better of me and I’ll give it a try. So I wanted my first plane to give me enough room to grow.

All of which made for a fairly broad set of requirements for the plane. I wanted it to be a good beginner’s plane. I wanted it to be cheap and easy to fix. And I wanted it to have enough capacity to let me eventually cram a camera into its guts. I wound up asking for the Bixler 2 from Hobby King. It’s a 1.5m wingspan motor glider that was designed with FPV and cameras in mind. An excellent video from Flite Test discusses the origins of the Bixler 2, and the similarities and differences between it and its predecessor, the Bixler. The biggies are that the Bixler is smaller and faster, but harder on its battery. The Bixler 2 has a wider wingspan and a slower motor driving a larger prop, which leads to its longer battery life. The Bixler 2 also incorporates flaps, though you have to supply your own servos to use that option. (Yes, I asked for the flap servos as well.) The whole thing is molded from EPO foam, so repairs are fairly straightforward.

Now for the kicker: The Bixler 2, flap servos, ESC, three LiPo batteries, a LiPo charger, and an RC glider backpack all cost less than my G-Kites Dopero. (This helped sell the idea with she who actually orders my presents.) So much for RC airplanes being out of my price range. All I need now is a donor camera to stick in it. (Did I really say that?) No, seriously… First I have to learn to fly.

– Tom

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4 Responses to “Branching Out – The Bixler 2”

  1. Jasja said

    Awesome. I am putting my easystar together this winter, with a ardupilot. Would be nice to compare notes. Still puzzling where to mount the camera. On the wing for ortho, and I will lasercut a rig for the frontal movable gopro…

  2. Tom Benedict said

    Hey, cool! Let me know how your build goes. (The Easystar was the first one I wanted. But I didn’t have the money at the time. Then the Bixler 2 came along…)

    I’m curious to hear how the ardupilot board goes. It looks like it has a lot of nice features for this, like gyro stabilization and GPS. I might have to pick your brain about that. I’m interested in the ardupilot for another project, too: A lot of people have been doing high altitude balloons with cameras on them. I’d like to do one here, but living on an island makes some things a little challenging. If the balloon goes out to sea, recovering the payload gets to be impossible. One thought was to have a “safe space” mapped out in GPS coordinates. If the balloon drifts outside of the safe space, it cuts the payload away. Since the ardupilot can steer an aircraft to a specific waypoint, it seems reasonable to use a parafoil canopy instead of a round canopy, and attach the steering toggles to a servo that the ardupilot can operate. That way if the balloon drifts outside the safe space, the payload is cut away and then steers to a recovery site where we can be waiting for it.

    I know… I know… nothing is that perfect. But it’s better than watching a balloon payload land a mile offshore.

    Anyway, I’m interested in the ardupilot for my Bixler 2, also. I’m still puzzling through various camera mount designs, though. Some of the stuff will have to wait until I learn to fly, though.

    Tom

    • Jasja said

      Yeah, the bixler was too difficult to get here in Europe, so I got this one instead… It is the “old” easystar though, which should be pretty good. There is a nice drawing for lasercutting a Bixler mount with small servo’s somewhere on diydrones (they sell them too) and another one on the thingiverse. But learning to fly is the first exciting step, looking forward to that too!

      I’ve been thinking about doing such a project too, but there have been some successful attempts here already so we abandoned the idea… Wouldn’t you be able to pick up the payload with your boat? Couldn’t you make a waterproof GPS/transmitter bit, and mount a gopro or such on the outside?

  3. Tom Benedict said

    It depends on which side of the island it lands on. If it lands on the west side, I probably could pick it up in my boat or in someone else’s boat. On the east side, though, there are stretches of coastline that are hundred foot high cliffs for miles and miles and miles. Nowhere to put in, nowhere to get out. I’ve been a little leery sailing in those areas until I have a better feel for the boat. Dismasting along one of those stretches of coastline would be pretty lethal.

    Yeah, learning to fly is the first step. I’m REALLY really looking forward to that.

    Tom

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